In his brief but complex story “Araby,” James Joyce concentrates on character rather than on plot to reveal the ironies within self-deception. On one level “Araby” is a story of initiation, of a boy’s quest for the ideal. The quest ends in failure but results in an inner awareness and a first step into manhood. On another level the story consists of a grown man’s remembered experience, for a man who looks back to a particular moment of intense meaning and insight tells the story in retrospect. As such, the boy’s experience is not restricted to youth’s encounter with first love. Rather, it is a portrayal of a continuing problem all through life: the incompatibility of the ideal, of the dream as one wishes it to be, with the bleakness of reality. This double focus-the boy who first experiences, and the man who has not forgotten provides for the rendering of a story of first love told by a narrator who, with his wider, adult vision, can employ the sophisticated use of irony and symbolic imagery necessary to reveal the story’s meaning.
The story opens with a description of North Richmond Street, a “blind,” “cold … .. silent” (275)street where the houses “gazed at one an-other with brown imperturbable faces.”.(275) The former tenant, a priest, died in the back room of the house, and his legacy-several old yellowed books, which the boy enjoys leafing through because they are old, and a bicycle pump rusting in the back yard-become symbols of the intellectual and religious vitality of the past.
Every morning before school the boy lies on the floor in the front parlor peeking out through a crack in the blind of the door, watching and waiting for the girl next door to emerge from her house and walk to school. He is shy and still boyish. He follows her, walks silently past, not daring to speak, overcome with a confused sense of desire and adoration. In his mind she is both a saint to be worshipped and a woman to be desired. His eyes are “often full of tears.”.(276) Walking with his aunt to shop on Saturday evenings he imagines that the girl’s image accompanies him, and that he protects her in “places the most hostile to romance.” (276) Here, Joyce reveals the epiphany in the story: “These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.”(276) He is unable to talk to the girl. Drifting away from his schoolmates’ boyish games, the boy has fantasies in his isolation, in the ecstasy and pain of first love.
Finally the girl speaks to the boy. She asks him if he is going to Araby. He replies that if he does he will bring her a gift, and from that the moment his thoughts are upon the potential sensuality of “the white border of a petticoat”. (277) The boy cannot sleep or study and his school work suffers had hardly any patience with the serious work of lifeseemed to me childs play, ugly monotonous childs play. (277) The word Araby “cast an Eastern enchantment” (277) over him, and then on the night he is to go to the bazaar his uncle neglects to return home. Neither the aunt nor uncle understands the boy’s need and anguish, thus his isolation is deepened. We begin to see that the story is not so much a story of love as it is a rendition of the world in which the boy lives.The second part of the story depicts the boy’s inevitable disappointment and realization. In such an atmosphere of “blindness”(277) the aunt and uncle unaware of the boy’s anguish, the girl not conscious of the boy’s love, and the boy himself blind to the true nature of his love-the words “hostile to romance” (276) take on ironic overtones. These overtones deepen when the boy arrives too late at the bazaar. It is closing and the hall is “in darkness.”(278) He recognizes “a silence like that which pervades a church after a service”,(278) but the bazaar is dirty and disappointing. Two men are “counting money on a salver(278) and he listens “to the fall of the coins.”(278) The young lady who should attend him ignores him to exchange inane vulgarities with two “young gentlemen.”,(278) destroying the boy’s sense of an “Eastern enchantment (277)The boy senses the falsity of his dreams and his eyes burn “with anguish and anger.”
The boy’s manner of thought is made clear in the opening scenes. Religion controls the lives of the inhabitants of North Richmond Street. The boy, however, entering the new experience of first love, finds his vocabulary within the experiences of his religious training and the romantic novels he has read. The result is an idealistic and confused interpretation of love based on the imagery of romance. This creates an epiphany for the boy as he accompanies his aunt through the market place, lets us experience the texture and content of his mind. We see the futility and stubbornness of his quest. But despite all the evidence of the dead house on a dead street the boy determines to bear his “chalice safely through a throng of foes. Mangan’s sister is saintly; her name evokes in him “strange prayers and praises.” The boy is extraordinarily lovesick, and from his innocent idealism and stubbornness, we realized that he can not keep the dream. He must wake to the demands of the world around him and react. Thus the first half of the story foreshadows the boy’s awakening and disillusionment.
The account of the boy’s futile quest emphasizes both his lonely idealism and his ability to achieve the perspectives he now has. The quest ends when he arrives at the bazaar and realizes with slow, tortured clarity that Araby is not at all what he imagined. It is tawdry and dark and thrives on the profit motive and the eternal lure its name evokes in men. The boy realizes that he has placed all his love and hope in a world that does not exist except in his imagination. He feels angry and betrayed and realizes his self-deception. He feels he is “a creature driven and derided by vanity” and the vanity is his own.
At no other point in the story is characterization as brilliant as at the end. Joyce draws his protagonist with strokes designed to let us recognize in “the creature driven and derided by vanity” a boy who is initiated into knowledge through a loss of innocence who does not fully realize the incompatibility between the beautiful, innocent world of the imagination and the very real world of fact. In “Araby,” Joyce uses the boyhood character with the manhood narrator to embody the theme of his story.
Joyce, James. Araby. Literature and Its Writers.
Eds. Ann Charters and Samuel Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. Pgs 366-378.